Ten Years Later

"Then the second wave of al-Qaeda attacks hit America." A leading expert on counterterrorism imagines the future history of the war on terror. A frightening picture of a country still at war in 2011

The mayor of Chicago, whose security investments and preparations had often been lauded by the homeland-security secretary, was defiant as he pledged to ride the storied "El" to city hall each day. He also promised to speed up the installation of his once controversial "smart" surveillance cameras throughout public areas in the city. The system linked all video monitoring to a central emergency-management site, where police officers and sophisticated software programs could track suspicious activity on public thoroughfares. The mayor's actions received unanimous support from the city council. Chicagoans responded by continuing to use the trains.

Thursday was Railroad Day. Improvised explosive devices—or IEDs, popularized by Iraqi insurgents after the American invasion—exploded as interstate trains passed by or over them in Virginia, Colorado, Missouri, Connecticut, and Illinois.26 The five charges resulted in almost a hundred deaths. Among the fatalities was the national rail service itself, as terrorists finally broke congressional will to fund the money-losing venture any further: fifty pounds of explosives had accomplished what no appropriations committee could. It suspended operations that day and went into closure and liquidation the next month.

The "Patriot" line, from Boston to Washington, reopened later, after the Federal Railroad Police were created. The Ferpys, as they quickly became known, eventually took over security for all subway and commuter rail lines except the New York subway (which stubbornly resisted federal protection). The numerous agents on trains, along with the Ferpys' bright-yellow surveillance helicopters, are now a reassuring everyday sight in most large metropolitan areas—supplemented, of course, by the many UAVs, which are much harder to see.

Although Congress acted quickly on the president's proposal, creating the Ferpys took time. It was 2007 before all 155,000 officers had been hired, trained, and deployed. That delay was the major reason the Army went into the cities.

Most analysts now agree that Subway Day and Railroad Day not only caused the Senate filibuster to end, permitting the passage of Patriot Act III, but also finally triggered the withdrawal of some 40,000 troops from Iraq. The Army was needed in the subways.

In announcing the Reaction Enclave Strategy, the CENTCOM commander acknowledged, "Our goal now is just to prevent Iraq from becoming a series of terrorist training camps. If the new Iraqi army can't keep the peace among the factions, that's its problem." The strategy, which was also adopted in Afghanistan, has reduced the U.S. force deployment to those troops necessary to sanitize the area around the U.S. Counter-Terrorism Reaction Force (CTRF) camps. Iraq, with its three bases, and Afghanistan, with its two, require only 20,000 and 7,500 members of the U.S. armed forces respectively. Although some have criticized military and political leaders for allowing both countries to become "failed states" again, our CTRFs do at least retain the ability to strike terrorist facilities whenever they are detected. Improved intelligence collection and analysis have increased the success rate of the CTRFs and limited collateral damage.

The attacks in April of 2006 finally made possible the creation of the National Transportation Security Identity Card, or SID, as we now call it.27 Recall that before 2006 each of the fifty states actually issued its own card, in the form of a driver's license. The SID is a biometric smart card with the owner's photo, retinal signature, fingerprints, Social Security number, birthday, and address encoded in it. It has (so far, anyway) proved foolproof. Today a SID is required for passage through card-reader turnstiles at train stations, subway stations, and airports. Soon all automobiles will be equipped with SID readers connected to their ignition systems.

Even the Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, whose wariness of unnecessary government intrusion is well known, had acknowledged several years earlier that a national ID card would offer some benefits. Just a few weeks after 9/11 Dershowitz wrote,

Anyone who had the card could be allowed to pass through airports or building security more expeditiously, and anyone who opted out could be examined much more closely. As a civil libertarian, I am instinctively skeptical of such tradeoffs. But I support a national identity card with a chip that can match the holder's fingerprint. It could be an effective tool for preventing terrorism, reducing the need for other law-enforcement mechanisms—especially racial and ethnic profiling—that pose even greater dangers to civil liberties … A national ID card would not prevent all threats of terrorism, but it would make it more difficult for potential terrorists to hide in open view, as many of the Sept. 11 hijackers apparently managed to do.

The American Civil Liberties Union had disagreed, arguing not only that the government would misuse ID cards but also that corporations would be allowed to learn more about our private habits, and that foreign-looking people would still suffer more discrimination. The National Rifle Association made common cause with the ACLU, noting that requiring gun buyers to use the card would create a de facto gun registry. For several years the ACLU, the NRA, and their supporters helped prevent the introduction of a national ID card. After the mall massacres, perpetrated with assault rifles, Congress finally broke ranks with its NRA donors.

Not only has the SID increased identity security, but it could ultimately yield billions of dollars in savings by reducing bureaucracy. Local governments are using it to improve the delivery of state services and to cut down on waste and fraud by adding other information (gun and fishing licenses; welfare, unemployment, and insurance information) to the card.

Presented by

Richard A. Clarke was the national coordinator for security and counterterrorism for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and is the author of Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror. Bridger McGaw assisted him with this article.

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